Although it pains me to say so, I’ve got to admit that I’m not as sharp as I used to be. I lose important words, especially nouns. I introduce myself to folks I met at dinner just a week earlier. I think younger people talk too fast. I don’t know what Slack is, I don’t know how to use it and I don’t care. I frequently misplace my cellphone, a habit that exasperates my husband beyond measure. But frankly, he’s getting a little absent-minded himself.
Am I losing my mind? Well, yes. According to the experts, certain parts of my brain responsible for cognitive function are literally shrinking. My brain’s blood flow is slowing down, just like the rest of me. The inescapable result is lapses in the synapses. I’ve always thought that the worst threat to my vanity was advancing wrinkles. But now I know it’s cognitive slippage.
Perhaps it’s some consolation that my friends are getting dotty, too. Sure, they’re working gamely to keep their brains in tip-top shape. They do word puzzles, or try to learn a language. They take supplements and eat more leafy greens. Good luck to them. So far, nobody has figured out how to turn back the neurological clock.
The more I learn about brain aging, the more obvious it is that the kids really are smarter than we are. “The data are shockingly clear that for most people, in most fields, professional decline starts earlier than almost anyone thinks,” writes Arthur Brooks (no cognitive slouch himself) in a new essay for The Atlantic. He found that most of us reach our mental peak around 20 years after the start of our careers. We do our best work in our 40s and 50s and it’s all downhill from there.
People in different types of work peak at different ages, just as athletes do. Those who rely heavily on fluid intelligence – the ability to reason, think fast and solve problems in unique and novel situations – peak much younger than average. Mr. Brooks says his line of work is a good example. (He has just retired as the head of a well-known U.S. think tank.) “The most profound insights tend to come from those in their 30s and early 40s.”
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, chess grand masters and nuclear physicists are even more precocious – which means they burn out early. By the time they hit their 30s they’re already in creative decline. By contrast, lawyers, judges and professors draw more on what’s called crystallized intelligence – a stock of knowledge built up over time.They can coast on that knowledge well into their 60s. For most of us, however, cognitive decline begins in middle age.
So, what about my own profession? I’m pretty sure that journalism – which draws on both fluid and crystallized intelligence – is no exception to the rule. Tons of young reporters do amazing things. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were still in their 20s when they cracked the Watergate story. A few pundits who write opinions for a living manage to extend their careers into their 80s, but I would not advise it. It’s no fun writing when half your readers have died off.
These findings have important real-world implications. It means that past a certain point we don’t get wiser. We just get dottier. It also means that Joe Biden (age 76) and Bernie Sanders (age 77) are simply too old to be president. They don’t have the acuity, the reflexes or the cultural competency to grapple with the way the world is going. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Biden thought Snapchat was a breakfast cereal,” wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. (Donald Trump is also in his 70s, of course, but his age is the least of his deficiencies.)
“Many people of achievement suffer as they age, because they lose their abilities, gained over many years of hard work,” writes Mr. Brooks.Paradoxically, many people (especially men) also believe that the best way to conquer old age is never to retire. They’re terrified of letting go because their self-esteem is entirely invested in their work.
This approach is a mistake. It guarantees that you’ll be miserable when the phone stops ringing (which it will) and you’re no longer on the A-list (which you won’t be). Better to deliberately distance yourself from your brilliant career. Take up meditation. Teach. Find ways to be useful. Cultivate satisfaction from within.
And let me know how it goes. I’m right behind you.
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